Echoes in Eternity
Part four: Where the Long Road begins
"My Lady?" the soldier peeked his head into her tent and spoke quietly, trying not to waken the peacefully sleeping boy in the next chamber over.
Nicola Meridia turned to the young ranker. She wasn't unfamiliar with soldiers, but it was indeed strange to be around them day in and day out… Even though she had known for years that her brother was a general – in truth, both her brothers were, now, but only the gods and the emperor knew exactly where the oldest of the Meridius family had been sent off to this time – Maximus had always kept this side of his life away from his family. Her surprise at a summons from Rome had been extraordinary; what was Maximus doing there? More shocking, however, was the second message, directing her to an army camp well into northern Gaul.
Of course, when she arrived, there was no sign of her brother. The camp commander, Marcus Cotta, informed her that the general was on the front, due to arrive within a few days. That had been three weeks ago.
Overall, it was quite typical of Maximus. Once he became absorbed in something, he was utterly impossible to disengage.
"Yes?" she asked.
"The general is here to see you."
Smiling, Nicola leapt to her feet. "Should I bring Julius?" she asked.
The young soldier shook his head. "He said only you, My Lady."
Nodding, Nicola quickly glanced to her nephew, but Julius was still sound asleep. The boy was so excited to be around real soldiers that he constantly exhausted himself. So much like his father, Maximus' younger sister reflected… and so much like all their family. Always in motion, always needing to be occupied – until they fell into the dead of sleep. Then, earthquake and hurricane could not shake them. She smiled to herself and exited the tent on the ranker's heels.
He led her through the camp to the to the command tent at its center. Surprisingly, the large encampment did not seem quite so empty as it normally did, but there were a surprising amount of wounded men wandering around in addition to the healthy newcomers. As they moved inside the tent, which Nicola had never entered before, the Spanish woman noticed an unexpected amount of luxury in its accommodations, and a number of personal effects scattered with haphazard neatness throughout the front chamber. Weapons and books were predominant; but one wall sported an impressive selection of Roman "crowns," or awards won in battle, and although Nicola knew little of each of them, she was wise enough to notice the two most decrepit of them all; side by side crowns made of grass, one far more worn than the other.
Her eyebrows rose in surprise – every child within the empire learned the importance of the Grass Crown, the award given only to a man who single-handedly saved an entire legion or even an entire army. Few in history had ever won the prestigious award, and those who did were so evidently destined for greatness – the Dictator Lucius Cornelius Sulla, who had actually marched on and for Rome during the days of the Republic and the rebel Quintus Sertorius, who had achieved military greatness within Rome before turning against her. Far greater, though, were the numbers of famous military men who had not achieved the Grass Crown – Gaius Julius Caesar (the dictator), Gaius Marius, Gnaeus Pompeius Magnus, Lucius Licinius Lucullus, Augustus Caesar, and others well known and celebrated through out Roman history had all failed to win that one award. Yet there, in her brother's tent, were two of them.
Unless she was wrong, which was entirely possible, no matter how unlikely.
Following the legionnaire quickly took her away from that mystery, though. He led her into another chamber – this one far less lived in and more businesslike, with maps, charts, and official-looking documents scattered across the tables. However, there was an armored man in there as well, to whom the soldier bowed and then, when the stranger nodded, left. Sighing, Nicola stared at this general, who most defiantly was not her brother – unless Maximus had undergone an absolute change in everything from height to age to hair color, because this man was taller than her brother, slightly older, fair haired, and bore a predominate scar across his face. Altogether, he was not an ugly man – actually, to her eyes, he was quite attractive – but he was most certainly not the man she was looking for.
"You are not my brother," Nicola said bluntly.
"No, I am not," the officer replied with equal frankness. "I am sorry if you were led to believe that he is here, because he is not."
Disappointed, yet still slightly intrigued despite herself, Nicola offered him her hand when he approached, and noticed that he did indeed act the part of an officer and a gentlemen as he gently kissed its back. "I am Quintus Magnus, Maximus' second in command."
Willfully ignoring protocol, Nicola impatiently asked, "So where is my brother, then, General?"
He smiled slightly, and the younger woman could have sworn that her heart fluttered for a moment. Mentally slapping herself, she returned her mind to the present. Whatever that was, it was of little, if any, importance. However, he was replying, "Maximus is still at the front. The Germanians have sued for peace – or so they say."
"So they say?" Nicola repeated.
"Neither your brother or I are of the opinion that the Germanians mean it, but we must find out for sure." The general shifted slightly on his feet, and somehow, she got the feeling that he was slightly uncomfortable with the situation as it stood. "Maximus is at the present meeting with a delegation of Germanian tribal leaders."
"Is that safe?"
"Most of the army remains nearby, so yes, it is," Quintus replied. "Do not worry for your brother. He is the best Rome has to offer, and has the world's best army at his back."
"I know him far too well, General, not to worry," Nicola replied with a smile.
He chuckled. "You are most definitely Maximus' sister," he said lightly. "And please, call me Quintus."
A quick nod was his only reply, until he mentioned, "You have not yet asked when he will return."
"I figured you would tell me if you knew," she replied, liking this man more and more by the moment. At least he was honest and straightforward, unlike most Roman gentlemen that she had met.
"Within a week," Quintus answered.
Sighing with slight annoyance, Nicola retorted, "That's what they told me the first time."
"I know." Quintus smiled sheepishly. "Unfortunately, there is no way to make your brother stick to a schedule, especially when sinks his teeth into an idea, or in this case, a war."
She rolled her eyes. "I know."
"Where are my manners?" the general suddenly said, gesturing to a nearby set of chairs. "Would you like to sit down?"
"Thank you." Nicola smiled, and then decided to cross a line. What the heck – her family had never been known for caution. "Do you mind my asking you a few questions?"
"Yes," she admitted. "I've seen him very little in the past seventeen years, and he tells us very little of his life in the army."
Quintus chuckled. "I suppose so," he replied. "He's never been one to talk about himself. For instance, I have known him for fifteen of those years, and he never once told me that he has a beautiful and single younger sister."
Despite herself, Nicola found herself blushing. What in the world is this? her control demanded. Get it together, girl! He's just being nice or horny. Either way, you really want nothing to do with one of your brother's officers. "Should I be insulted or complimented?" she returned quickly.
Surprisingly – since most men would have been oh so quickly turned off by a direct and gutsy woman who had the brains to think for herself – Quintus laughed again. "I was trying for a compliment, but since I'm not the type of ladies' man your brother used to be, I don't have much practice," he replied lightly.
Smiling back, Nicola filed that one away for future reference before changing the subject. "Then I thank you."
"Anyways, what can I tell you about Maximus?"
"You called him the best Rome has to offer…"
Under the hailstorm of fiery arrows, the general furiously screamed his infantry commander's name. "Valerius!"
"General!" the short and burly man returned, quickly appearing at his side, even in the cramped confines of the testudo that sheltered the senior staff.
"If we don't break out of this hell hole, we're all going to die," Maximus replied tightly, coughing in the smoke. Oh, how he hated being trapped anywhere… Study of his command style told anyone that he was a bad man to corner – always, without failure, he lashed out.
For the first time in his long memory, though, he saw fear in his subordinate's eyes. "The men are frightened, sir," Valerius replied frankly. "I don't know if they can fight."
"Bullshit," Maximus swore, projecting every bit of confidence he had into his eyes and his voice. Boy were they needed now. "They're Roman, and they are of the Felix Legions. Lead them, and they will fight."
"The Germanians can't fire forever," Valerius reminded him.
"And we can't hide forever, either," the general retorted angrily. Not on his life, even if it were a tactically sound idea, which it most certainly was not, would he ever hide under the shields of his own men while they were picked off by those flaming arrows piercing the sky. "The longer we wait, more men die. I refuse to acknowledge that as a possible solution."
Knowing his long standing temper and all the rough edges, Valerius was wise enough to let it go at that. "What if they won't fight?" he asked quietly, confidence shaken from being cornered – and betrayed, they both knew without saying. There was no way this was a chance attack. Upon return from the peace conference, which had, of course, left the Germanians indescribably upset, there was no way for the enemy to know which way the Romans were going, unless they'd been betrayed by one of their own.
Fury mounting once again at the thought, Maximus ignored Valerius completely, instead turning to the scant one hundred men surrounding them. With only one century, it would be an undeniably hard battle to fight against an unknown number of adversaries, but that was why they called him the best.
"Listen up, boys!" he shouted over the deafening silence. "We're breaking out toward the west! Follow my lead, and I'll get you out of here."
Rousing cheers brought Nicola jerking out of the scroll she'd been reading. Julius too, glanced up, asking with his eyes the inevitable question – of course the boy wanted to see what was going on outside. Smiling slightly, his aunt nodded and rose, offering her hand to Maximus' eight-year-old son. "Let's go," she told him, and was rewarded with the child's absolutely charming smile.
The roar grew even louder as they stepped outside, and Nicola quickly followed it to its source, the western entrance the camp, a place she knew quite well thanks to Quintus' tour and subsequent visits. With Julius tugging on her hand, they reached the crowd quickly, in time to see the long line of legionnaires returning to their base camp. At their head rode one very familiar man.
Nicola watched Maximus leap off his horse and greet Quintus with a grin and an embrace. As the soldiers' cheering for him died down, she could catch their conversation. "We worried when we heard about the ambush," Quintus was saying. "The tribes were bragging that they had your head."
Her brother laughed easily as Nicola wondered, what ambush? with slight alarm. "Not by a long shot," Maximus replied.
Quintus chuckled in return. "I didn't think so, but had to be sure," he replied. "Didn't want to be telling the emperor that you'd gone off and got yourself killed."
Her brother snorted. "How are the men?"
"Mending well. And I speak for all of us when I mention that we're eager to get out there with you again."
Nicola was so engrossed in their conversation that she hardly noticed Julius tear free of her grip and fly forward.
"Papa!" a familiar voice called, and even as Maximus turned, he barely had time to catch a glimpse of his son as the boy rushed forward into his arms. With a grin, he swept Julius up off the ground. His son wrapped an arm around his father's neck delightedly.
"Aren't you a little old for this?" Maximus joked, a good day having just become excellent with the appearance of the son he'd not seen in well over three years.
"Papa," Julius glared at him, making the general laugh and turn to Quintus.
"Something you forgot to mention?" he asked with a smile, but his second in command only shook his head as Nicola approached, and Maximus turned to his sister with a smile. "Nicola."
"Hello, Maximus." As she offered her cheek, he kissed it lightly.
His little sister had not changed one bit, since she was obviously giving Julius the you're gonna get it look he remembered so well. "Perhaps we should go somewhere else to talk," he suggested with a smile. Then, Looking over his shoulder at his men, he added, "Without my entire army looking on!"
The soldiers laughed as he turned to Quintus; they were used to their general's sometimes obscure sense of humor. "Get them out of here," he ordered with a grin, then eased his son to the ground and offered his sister his arm. "Shall we?"
As she took it, Nicola looked to him and said, "You have a lot of explaining to do, brother."
He could not help but quirk a smile. "Somehow I'd figured that."
Entering his tent, Maximus immediately shed his wolf fur-lined cloak, glad to be rid of its oppressive warmth, yet all the while still understanding how important its symbolism was, especially now. Cicero met him just inside the entrance and removed both cloak and sword from Maximus' hands before he could toss either carelessly aside, making the general grin in return. Wordlessly, his old friend began helping him remove first his silver lorcia segmentata, then the gold, wolf-adorned breastplate underneath it. Aware of Julius' and Nicola's eyes upon him, Maximus quickly shed his shin and wrist guards along with the rest of his armor. A quick tug pulled his tunic off as well, leaving him glad only in a sleeveless white undershirt and maroon trousers, until his servant handed him a robe.
"Thanks, Cicero," he smiled to the younger man, shrugging into the almost too warm garment.
"You're welcome, sir." With his usual sense, Cicero made himself scarce, disappearing into a back chamber with the arms and armor in hand.
Moving to a small table, Maximus turned to his sister. "Wine?" he asked.
"Water, please," she replied, and her brother obliged, also giving his son a cup as Julius watched him with large eyes. The general knew that his son had never before seen him in this guise – that of a soldier and a warrior rather than that of a gentleman farmer and father. "Come here, Julius," he said with a smile, patting the couch at his side.
Eagerly, the young boy moved from his aunt's side, immediately snuggling up against his father and resting his head against Maximus' chest. "Papa?"
"Yes?" Maximus smiled down at him.
"Can I have a real horse now? I'm getting too old to ride a pony!" The small boy's voice bubbled with excitement until Nicola coughed. The general glanced to her, then, and saw her displeased expression. Obviously, this subject had been broached many a time before.
"What have we always said about that?" Maximus asked carefully, hoping that his sister had not changed the rules on him, but knowing all the same that she hadn't.
Julius pouted. "You always say not until I'm ten."
The general could not help but chuckle. "Then ten it is."
"Papa! I'm almost ten now!"
"Julius, my son, you are seven months away from ten years old. In my book, that means you are still closer to nine than ten – and more importantly, it means you will wait for your horse," Maximus replied. "Some things are worth waiting for."
"No more buts today, Julius," the general said firmly. "We've been through this before. You'll get your horse when you turn ten, I promise. But no sooner."
"Yes, I do," Maximus replied with a smile. "All right?"
"Okay." Julius smiled back, and his father had to marvel at how quickly the boy accepted his decisions, even after all this time…
"So," Maximus continued, changing the subject, but still feeling a pang in his heart, "Tell me about all the growing up you have done."
Grinning, his son quickly launched into a diatribe of the last four years his young life, skipping from subject to subject with a child's ease, almost quickly enough to make his father's head spin. Smiling back, though, Maximus merely listened, inwardly all too aware of how much he had missed, but gratefully concentrating on the future in lieu of the past. Still, though, it hurt to hear of his son's first ride on a pony, to be told of his first fall, his first broken bone (his left arm), the first book he finished by himself, and so many other firsts – all of which a father should have been there for, but Maximus had missed. So much had happened in the years he'd been gone… And he was ever so appreciative to find his son happy, despite his mother's death. He owed his sister more than he could say.
But Julius' monologue was drawing to an end. "My friends don't believe I'm going to Rome," he gushed as a conclusion. "We are going to Rome, aren't we, Papa?"
Almost breathless himself from Julius' long-winded story, Maximus grinned. "Yes," he chuckled. "In fact, you'll be moving to Rome."
"To Rome?" Julius gasped excitedly, even as Nicola arched an eyebrow skeptically.
"Moving?" she asked.
"Yes," Maximus answered them both, and, to forestall Julius' excited and inevitable questions, said, "Now I have a story to tell you."
"About what?" Julius asked impatiently.
The general laughed. "Well, I have some interesting news," he began, slightly ill at ease, but knowing that there was no better time to let the cat out of the bag. How, though, did he tell his son that he had a new wife? Politics and emotion had dictated that they marry quickly, yet he knew that would only make it harder on Julius.
Nicola saved him from the excitement. "Julius, hush," she said. "Your father will tell you much quicker if you stop interrupting him."
Maximus ruffled his hair. "That's all right. I'm not quite sure how to tell you this, anyway… But I got married three months ago."
There. He'd said it. It was out. And Nicola was giving him the strangest of looks… of course, she wasn't happy that he'd not let her know, and that she'd not met the woman in question… Oh, dear. I bet she and Lucilla are going to have fun arguing with each other. By virtue of an older mind, his sister beat his son to the reply. "Married?"
"Yes," he replied evenly, trying to decide how best to let his sister know what this meant to him… She and Selene had always been friends, and it was surely hard for her to accept another in that place. "Her name is Lucilla, and she also has a son. Actually, Lucius is your age," he said, looking down at Julius.
Whatever else that could be said, Julius was a bright child. And a very forgiving one. "You mean I have a stepbrother?" he asked. "And a stepmother?"
Maximus nodded, meeting Nicola's eyes over his son's head. Indeed, there was much explaining to do… "But that's not all that has happened since I left home," he continued. "To explain the rest, though, I have to go further back in history."
"Go on," Nicola said cautiously.
"Twelve years ago, when I was nineteen, the Northern Army, which was in Britannia, was ambushed in the middle of the night. Our general was killed in the first wave, and I took command of the disaster. After we won, the emperor made me a general on the field.
"Over the years, I came to know Marcus Aurelius rather well," Maximus continued. "A few years after the battle in Britannia, I became his general, the Emperor's General. Much time passed, though, and neither of us said much about the relationship we were forming. It seemed of little consequence to anyone besides us. Until seven months ago, when he asked me to be his heir."
Nicola's gasp was sharp, and even Julius looked at his father in surprise. Nine years old or not, the boy knew exactly what that meant. Every child born within the vast Roman Empire knew that. Both stared at him with shocked eyes, all of a sudden seeing Maximus in an entirely different light.
"But you're…" Nicola finally managed to say.
"A Spanish nobody," the general grinned. "Just a general, who happens to be very good at what I do. I said all those things, many times, but the emperor knows me better than I know myself, and if he has decided to trust me with his dream, I will fulfill it – no matter how little I want to."
"I didn't mean to be –"
Maximus cut her off with a gentle shake of the head. "I know," he said easily, reaching out and touching his sister's arm. "You're my sister, Nicola. "I still remember pouring honey in your hair when you were six. You can't possibly insult me. I may be the next Emperor of Rome–" Goodness, wasn't that hard to admit! "–but I'm still your brother. I'm not very different from the man you've known all these years."
His sister smiled slightly. "I know, but it's just hard to believe. My brother…the next Emperor. It just sounds strange, that's all."
"I think it's cool!"
A fire arrow pierced the dark night. Silent milliseconds ticked by in an eternity, and watching, the Germanic leader held his breath, trying to gauge the distance and decide how much time he had before the inevitable attack. The archer had been several miles away, at least… Not the smartest move his adversary could make, really, since it gave the Roman position away.
Suddenly, a close, eerily familiar, voice tore through the night. "Standby!"
"Standby!" The multiple echoes jerked the Germanian into action, and he knew that arrow had only been a deliberate distraction, given freely by a tactical mind. They were under attack, and he only had moments to wake his sleeping men –
Then, with horror, he realized that his pickets were gone. Captured, dead, worse–?
"Loose!" the voice thundered, and fire colored the dark sky. Unable to do anything else, the warrior king dove for cover and waited the attack's first phase out. Unfortunately, even as he rose, shouting orders and sprinting to the front of his camp, he saw shadows in the darkness.
The leader squinted and saw the line of troops behind a mounted commander, and heard the order echoed down the ranks. "Standby!"
A slight rattling of weapons, and the light clank of swords being drawn sounded. And he knew that his men, who were rushing the preparations and fighting the fires even then, would never be ready. The next shout though, he knew would mean their deaths.
"Forward!" several voices, seemingly right in front of his face, cried out, and his heart began to pound.
"Standfast!" other officers called.
Immediately, the shadows moved forward, and the rebel leader found himself watching in sick fascination and dread. "Form up!" he shouted desperately. "Form up!"
But even as his men rushed forward, he knew it couldn't be enough; thundering hoof beats echoed and shook the ground, but over their noise, the Germanian heard another commander's voice.
"Infantry!" the second group of voices repeated.
And thus came the Roman Army. The tribes fought hard, but shock value and fear paid off; amid fires burning, their dream of conquering Rome died. Eventually, as the sun rose bright in the morning sky, he found himself herded with the remainders of his men, prisoners of war and awaiting execution.
The triumph was an honor singled out for only those of Imperial blood – or, more properly, the Emperor himself. In the days of the Republic, victorious generals had applied to the senate for permission to hold a triumph, in which the proof of their victory – spoils, prisoners, and artifacts – was displayed and paraded for all Rome to see. The ancient triumphal route was well traveled, and the people always gathered from far and wide to witness the greatness of Rome. In those days, there was no shorter road to political popularity than a military victory.
The advent of the empire, however, had changed all of that. Beginning with Augustus Caesar himself, only Emperors triumphed. There were no ifs, ands, or buts about that, either, for no Caesar could permit the existence of a potential rival. The popularity gained from a triumph was far too great; Rome loved her military victories with no prejudice. No man other than the emperor would triumph; the risk of losing power was far too great. Over time, this fact had become a time-honored tradition, and that was why many emperors spent so much time on the forefront of wars – they had to be able to claim at least some credit for the victory.
But that all changed with news of the final victory in Germania. Three quarters of the old German lands were now a newly formed Roman province. Fabled and lost treasures had been found once more, and the kings and leaders of the so-called Germanic Alliance were marching before the ancient triumphal chariot, chained in gold.
Yet Marcus Aurelius awaited the victor at the end of the ancient triumphal path, smiling easily. For all the world, the old emperor looked content, and as if he had no worries whatsoever – for some reason, the man seemed to have defeated the power-hungry demons that haunted his predecessors. His smile widened slightly as the beginning of the procession came into his view, confident and assured that everything was how it ought to be.
Perhaps that was because he had nothing to fear from the man whom the crowds screamed for.
A little over six months ago, he thought to himself, they did not even know his name. Now they call for him. Vale, my friend – my son – and lead well. I have no fears for when I leave this place.
Look at him; this is something he's never experienced before. I think, truly, it frightens him. As well it should. You never wanted this kind of power, did you, Maximus? But that is what will make you great… the power, and the wisdom to wield it well and justly. Rome needs far more an iron hand than I can provide; she needs your gentle balance of hardness and love. The future beckons darkly, doesn't it? That is why I must choose you, and not a man such as myself. Yes, you love peace, but you have far more the conviction to fight for it than I.
I wish you all the best, once again… I am in the sunset of my life, but your light is only now rising in the sky. To my side is my daughter, your wife – your love. She will show you all you can even need to know… But this is not goodbye. No, not yet. I've some time left, still, even though, as of this moment, I know Rome no longer needs me.
She has you.
Oh, they love you already. Before me I see a striking vision of the future, one where Rome is the light, as you so heartfully put it once. Perhaps you were right. Perhaps I did not see what Rome can become. Long ago, I showed you a dream. I shared its warmth with you, and you too came to believe. Only now do I see how much of your heart is wrapped up inside it. I do not think this idealism, now…nor pure loyalty. You love Rome for what she is, and for what she can be.
What We Do In Life…